Platforms, Creative Communities, and the Need for a Radical Reimagining

Content creators are at the mercy of corporations because they have no control over the infrastructure on which they depend.

A series of uniform heads are seen with play buttons for eyes of different colors that are projecting outwards.
Carlo Giambarresi

For decades, we were told that “digital” meant that everything would last forever, that nothing would be forgotten, that all culture would be available on demand. But scroll past the broken links, deleted tweets, and unloadable videos of an old “best of” Vine thread, and it’s an instant reminder that platform capitalism only remembers what it thinks is valuable. When Twitter announced in October 2016 that it was shutting down the micro-video app and suspending the uploading of new content, it promised to create an archive of all posted videos. The company discontinued the archive less than three years later, not long before one of its executives conceded that ending Vine was a mistake, particularly in view of the extraordinary popularity of TikTok.

Accounts of what happened at Vine and why Twitter chose to shut it down suggest that it had started to fail long before the decision was made. Users were leaving in droves, abandoning it for rivals that had aped its micro-clip format like Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram, or for YouTube, where creators could pursue their use of the medium in less restricted ways. A group of Vine’s top creators reportedly proposed that the company make product improvements and compensate them in exchange for regularly supplying the platform with content. Twitter rejected their offer and the creators abandoned Vine.

It’s clear that Twitter failed to understand and support the service. Vine was an entirely new cultural platform where an emergent community of creatives — mainly young, and often Black — rapidly invented new artistic forms and visual languages to fit within the six-second limitation of short, looping, DIY video clips. It all happened so quickly that it was often impenetrable to outsiders, as well as to the company that owned it. Twitter had unwittingly enabled the creation of a true subculture, with its own self-referential values and aesthetics. And it didn’t know what to do with it — or more precisely, it didn’t know how to make money from it.

We need dozens, if not hundreds, of new platforms that are designed and built by artists and creators as much as by entrepreneurs and engineers, providing infrastructure that’s tailored to the evolving needs of emerging and established creative communities.

TikTok, which launched the month before Twitter said it was ending Vine, has attracted a much larger and even more passionate user base of creators who have built their own subcultures. As with Vine, these have again been spearheaded by mainly Black creators — many of whom still have frequent, serious complaints about how TikTok treats them and their content, ranging from cultural appropriation from white users to the “shadow banning” and even deletion of content regarded as too political. But in contrast to Twitter’s management of Vine, TikTok has prospered because it generally seems to understand what its users want, and perhaps most importantly, it has figured out how to make money from them, using data mining and advertising to propel its parent company ByteDance to a reported $3 billion profit in 2019.

And yet the threat of impermanence hangs over TikTok and its users nevertheless, at least in the US. Citing security concerns because the app’s owner is Chinese, Donald Trump’s threat to ban it forced ByteDance to strike a partnership with, bizarrely, the business database giant Oracle and big-box retailer Walmart — arguably the least suitable corporations to be trusted with a youth subculture. The deal has since been stuck in a complicated regulatory limbo for months, with no clear timeline for when it will be resolved. There are also lingering questions about whether or not China itself will approve the deal and allow the transfer of the app’s intellectual property.

Meanwhile, TikTok has been on the verge of a government-mandated US shutdown for weeks. Once again, a creative community faces an unsure future because it doesn’t have any ownership or control over the infrastructure on which it depends.

Creative demonetization

“Every time I step to the microphone,
I put my soul on two-inch reels that I don’t even own.”
“Devil Music,” The Pharcyde

Of course, you don’t have to create a new culture from scratch to be a struggling artist on the internet. As William Deresiewicz writes in his book The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech:

“Digital content has been demonetized: music is free, writing is free, video is free, even images you put up on Facebook or Instagram are free, because people can (and do) just take them. Everyone is not an artist. Making art takes years of dedication, and that requires a means of support. If things don’t change, a lot of art will cease to be sustainable.”

Take the music industry, for example. From Napster to the iTunes Music Store and now Spotify, the last two decades look a lot like an exercise in how to use internet platforms to effectively deny income to musicians while extracting maximum value in content and data. The effect has transformed music from something that consumers buy and own to something they rent. Album sales are virtually dead, and the subscription model is king. Many find the promise of having all music instantly on tap for a monthly fee irresistible, but it’s a model that punishes musicians as much as it rewards listeners. Spotify pays $0.00318 on average per stream, or $3.18 for every thousand streams.

These rates are so low that the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers has identified them as a labor issue, and recently launched a campaign called Justice at Spotify. “Music workers create all of the enormous wealth Spotify accumulates for its CEO, its investors, and the major labels,” the group declares on its website. “But we artists continue to be underpaid, misled, and otherwise exploited by the company.” Spotify responded by proposing a feature that gives artists more algorithmic visibility in exchange for a reduced royalty rate.

Spotify’s main form of compensation is the promise of exposure. Put your music on Spotify and it’s instantly available to 138 million subscribers, a veritable nation-state of potential listeners. But with that promise comes the relinquishing of even more control. Reaching any of those listeners depends primarily on Spotify’s recommendation systems; another system of complex infrastructures that musicians neither own nor have any control over. 

The music industry has always been dominated by a small cabal of large media companies that control practically every aspect of distribution, promotion, and retail. But hidden in the spaces between these systems were always opportunities to build other industries that fed off and into the same infrastructure: independent record labels and shops, fanzines, pirate and college radio stations. There was always room for curation, in ways that would frequently give birth to new musical movements and genres. It also created jobs and careers that often provided additional revenue streams for artists to support themselves.

Most of that is now gone. But something else was lost — a very real form of ownership and control. Emerging music genres only flourish independently for a short amount of time before they’re inevitably subsumed by consumer capitalism, but in that span industries can be built, careers forged, communities funded. The shift to algorithmically managed platform capitalism has increasingly made those old infrastructures irrelevant. The gap from the creation of music to its absorption into the corporate entertainment industry has been shrunk to the time it takes to upload an audio file.

If platforms like Vine and TikTok aim to make us all content creators, subscription platforms like Spotify aim to make us all content curators, picking our favorite tracks and sharing them with friends and the internet at large. While curating our music choices might give us a brief flash of empowerment, like we’ve somehow escaped the clutches of corporate gatekeepers and hipster tastemakers, in reality we’re all unpaid Spotify employees. As our every share, every play, every like, and every click is monitored, we’ve become part of the corporate infrastructure itself, teaching unseen, black-boxed algorithms about our tastes and dislikes, about what’s trending and popular. It’s all unpaid labor that feeds Spotify’s recommendation systems while also teaching advertising networks how to target us more directly.

This dynamic — the dependence on our creative labor to develop content and our curation labor to teach recommendation algorithms, while optimizing for ad revenue — is actually the core business model of virtually all content platforms, from YouTube to Facebook, Netflix to Instagram. It is the primary driver that dictates how culture is not just consumed, but by extension how and why it is produced.

Presumably the intended endgame of this is for the algorithms to get to know us so well that they no longer require our input. They could come to predict our moods and whims to the point where they choose what we want to listen to before we know it ourselves — or ultimately enable AI and machine learning programs to automate the creation of content.

Creating alternatives

The same processes of corporate appropriation that control and commercialize culture today have done so for over a century. What’s new is how fast and efficient network technology has enabled them to be. But while this sounds bleak, there are also ways that these technologies can directly serve the interests of creators.

Take Bandcamp, for example. The Oakland-based music distribution platform tries to give control back to artists and record labels. There’s no subscription model (although some labels and artists on the platform offer their own subscription plans); consumers buy music instead of rent the right to listen to it; and artists and labels have full control over pricing, and can sell physical copies and merchandise alongside the downloads and streams. It’s new livestreaming feature allows musicians to host ticketed online events, and the service’s Fair Trade Music Policy allots 80 to 85 percent of all sales revenue to artists. It has also been waiving its revenue share on sales that occur on the first Friday of the month as a response to artists losing revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But Bandcamp isn’t the answer. Moving all music from Spotify to Bandcamp is no more of a solution than moving all of TikTok’s content from ByteDance’s data centers to Oracle’s cloud. The Bandcamp model might offer artists a greater degree of control and revenue share, but Vine has shown that there’s too much to be lost by investing so much in a single platform. Not only are monolithic platforms too much of a single point of failure, but issues of scale mean that those who run them will inevitably end up out of touch with those who create content for them, making that failure ever more likely.

We need dozens, if not hundreds, of new platforms that are designed and built by artists and creators as much as by entrepreneurs and engineers, providing infrastructure that’s tailored to the evolving needs of emerging and established creative communities. And we need business models that incorporate creators and curators in the platform’s governance, allowing constructive behavior to flourish organically while encouraging audiences to discover and engage with art rather than being surveilled and force-fed content.

By configuring technology to work in the interests of those who use it, we can create platforms that not only compensate creators fairly, but that also give them and their communities the opportunity to build infrastructures and cultural movements with futures that outlast the whims of shareholders, investors, and algorithmically mediated trends.

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A series of uniform heads are seen with play buttons for eyes of different colors that are projecting outwards.

Artwork By

Carlo Giambarresi

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